‘Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem’

Jewish and Christian religious groups demonstrate in support of Israel near the United Nations headquarters on September 21, 2011, in New York. (Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images)

American reactions to Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 have spanned a wide spectrum. American college campuses serve as havens of some of the most entrenched anti-Israel sentiment, with radical pro-Palestinian activists seemingly unmoved even by the torture and dismemberment of some Jewish victims. Among the most stalwart pro-Israel voices in America are, as usual, evangelical Christians. To cite one example, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) issued an “Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel,” with signatures from major leaders in the SBC as well as other top evangelical figures. The statement condemned “the violence against the vulnerable” and affirmed “Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack.” 

This declaration was no surprise. Indeed, it would have been surprising if leading American evangelicals did not register unequivocal support for Israel in such a crisis. At first glance, however, evangelical support for a largely secular Jewish nation could seem confusing. “Evangelical” Christians are defined by the belief that eternal salvation depends on putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Adherents of other religions, or of no religion, are not “saved,” according to most evangelicals. So why would evangelicals show steadfast support for the ethnic Jews of Israel, where a plurality of citizens still identifies as secular

Certain scholars and religion journalists persistently attribute evangelical support for Israel to “end times” beliefs, including the rise of an evil antisemitic Antichrist and the return of Jesus to earth. The October 7 attack has, predictably, renewed dramatic-sounding accounts about evangelical eschatology (theology of the last days) and the modern nation of Israel. But many Christians support Israel and Jews for reasons that have little to do with end-times scenarios. The ERLC notes that the signers’ “theological perspectives on Israel and the Church” vary. Some evangelicals certainly believe that the modern nation of Israel will play a central role in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Others do not. Yet American evangelicals are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and the Jewish people, regardless of convictions about the last days.

One basic reason for this support is that Christianity is, at root, a messianic religion born out of Judaism. Jesus and the disciples were Jews. Once it began to spread widely among “Gentiles,” or non-Jews, the religion took on an identity separate from its Jewish origins. Of course, most Jews throughout history have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Nevertheless, the Christian gospel went to the “Jew first,” and then to the rest of the world, as the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Romans. Similarly, the Christian faith has deep, permanent connections to the land of Israel, where both Judaism and Christianity originated. Pilgrimage to Israel is not obligatory for Christians, but many across denominations do make the trip to Israel to have their faith invigorated as they tour the sites of the Holy Land.

Many Christians still affirm God’s promise that he would make the Jews into a great nation, and that he would “bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee,” as he told Abraham in Genesis 12. Christians believe that God fulfilled those promises by turning Israel into an enduring people, among whom the Messiah was born—and many believe the promises of blessings and curses remain in place. Few Christians would argue that these promises give modern Israel carte blanche to treat Palestinians however they like, or to engage in unjust behavior as a nation. The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement after October 7, for example, warning that “actions by Israel that go beyond self-defense by taking revenge on those living in Gaza risk inflicting further suffering on innocent civilians while undermining the long-term security of the Israeli people.” But the biblical promises suggest to many evangelicals that Christians should show compassion to Jews, one of the most-persecuted ethnic groups in human history, and express solidarity with the nation of Israel.

So how did this concern for Israel become such a distinctive trait of evangelicals? The mandate to act compassionately toward the world’s Jews was once accepted by a broad range of American Christians, even before the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust came to light in 1945. Many “mainline” and liberal Christians—those in historic, non-evangelical Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church—were outspoken advocates of Zionism. Certain liberal Christians promoted a Jewish homeland for decades prior to World War II, while “fundamentalist” Christians (a typical term for evangelicals in those days) tended to be more muted on the matter. Many fundamentalists saw partisan politics as a distraction from the church’s true business of preaching the gospel. Born-again Protestants did not begin to emerge as a major political force until the 1950s, so they rarely had much influence in the American foreign policy establishment anyway. As historian Samuel Goldman shows in his excellent book Gods Country, figures including the mainline theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and President Harry Truman, a nominal Baptist, backed the Zionist campaign because they thought Jews had a right to self-determination, peace, and safety, especially in light of the Holocaust. 

Some of the political causes that tamp down support for Israel today—including concerns for other groups in the region—didn’t overtake broad Christian support for the Israeli state. As Truman’s administration recognized the state of Israel when it declared independence in May 1948, some Christians registered grave doubts about the handling of Israel’s formation and the treatment of displaced Palestinians. Even Niebuhr regarded Zionist assurances that their plans would “entail no ‘injustice’ to the Arab population” as implausible and naïve. Some notable evangelical voices criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as vociferously as did any mainliner. Major evangelical figures such as the Baptist Carl Henry, a close ally of the revivalist Billy Graham and the founding editor of Christianity Today magazine, also cited Israel for its lack of religious freedom and its prohibitions on Christian evangelists and missionaries.

Yet Niebuhr and others still regarded a homeland for the Jews the more pressing priority, and liberal and mainline support for Israel endured into the 1960s. In the leadup to the Six-Day War of 1967, a group of Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders, including Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., called for America to protect the “independence, integrity, and freedom of Israel.”  

By the 1970s, a constellation of religious and political factors made support for Israel a common marker of American conservatism, including religious conservatism. Conservatives increasingly connected Israel with anti-communism and saw Israel as a refuge for persecuted Jews under Soviet rule. The 1970s also saw a surge of popular prophecy writing that gave a major role to Israel in its end-times scenarios. The wildly popular Left Behind novels of the 1990s were preceded by books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970, which forecast a Soviet invasion of Israel, the rise of the Antichrist in Europe, and the return of Christ to lead the army of Israel against its foes. It sold tens of millions of copies, becoming one of the best-selling books in America in the second half of the 20th century. American Studies professor Erin A. Smith calls The Late Great Planet Earth “an incredibly successful ‘crossover’ book—one of the first texts to bridge the divide between religious and secular audiences.” With an insatiable American market for prophecy speculation, every news story out of Israel or the Middle East was matched by new books speculating about the coming of Armageddon and the return of Christ. Whether these books served primarily as entertainment or theology (or both) is hard to discern. 

Many of these books came out of a broadly “dispensational” theological perspective, which held that most of the prophecies in biblical books such as Daniel and Revelation remained to be fulfilled in the future, in a restored nation of Israel. Popular dispensationalism colored the rhetoric of politicians such as Ronald Reagan, who once said that “never, in the time between the prophecies up until now, has there been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together,” suggesting that his generation might live to see Armageddon.

Boosted by new organizations such as Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority—and with pro-Israel messages from the likes of Billy Graham and evangelical-proximate entertainers like Pat Boone and Johnny Cash—Reagan reflected the matrix of anticommunist, Judeo-Christian, and prophecy-inflected support for Israel that crystallized in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Meanwhile, the mainline churches’ leadership became increasingly liberal, and after America’s debacle in Vietnam the political left grew largely contemptuous of anti-communism. Liberals criticized conservatives’ default inclination to support Israel, even as a bulwark against global communist power. The Christian left also framed much of its political agenda as the defense of vulnerable minorities, domestically or internationally, who were victimized by those in power. The left increasingly labeled states such as Israel as “imperial,” “colonizers,” or worse, and Palestinian grievances (despite some Palestinians’ connections with terrorist organizations) became one of the most appealing causes for the American denominational and academic left. Niebuhrian mainline support for Israel faded into the past.

Though its influence clearly stretched into politics, end-times fascination gets disproportionate credit as the main motivation for evangelical support for Israel, especially among scholars and journalists disposed to portray evangelicalism as something of a doomsday cult. Most of the signers of the ERLC document, or leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, would not affirm the extremely speculative scenarios of The Late Great Planet Earth or Left Behind. Policy statements by mainstream evangelical leaders about Israel typically reveal little interest in supporting modern Israel because it will somehow hasten the end of days, the events leading to the rise of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, and the return of Jesus Christ to earth.

Prophetic speculation is but one of several overlapping reasons contemporary American evangelicals have for their default support of Israel. Political scientist Mark R. Amstutz helpfully explains that “Christian Zionism” is made up of three “strands”: covenantal, prophetic, and progressive Zionism, with one strand or another being more compelling for any given evangelical supporter of Israel. Anti-evangelical accounts tend to treat “prophetic,” end-times-oriented Zionism as the essential, and perhaps the only factor explaining evangelical fondness for the Israelis.

But a second strand is “progressive” Zionism, or what we might call “moral” Zionism. This view dates to the mainline Christian Zionism of Niebuhr and others, and the widespread sympathy for the Jewish community after the Holocaust. Progressive or moral Zionism was the essential backdrop to the recognition of Israel as an independent nation in 1948. It is also the most generically Christian strand of Zionism, one that could be shared by virtually anyone who thinks that morality—not just national self-interest—should play a role in foreign policy. Progressive Zionism recognizes that Jews have suffered terrible persecution throughout history, leading ultimately to the Nazi genocide. Scenes of Hamas terrorists butchering babies and innocent civilians recall painful memories of the world’s inaction before the Holocaust. Supporting Israel in response to the Hamas attack simply reaffirms a belief that Jews should have a homeland that serves as a refuge from terror and antisemitic violence. Evangelicals are among the chief inheritors of progressive Zionism, even as many mainliners have turned against it.

Finally, and most important for evangelicals, is the strand of “covenantal” Zionism: the idea that God’s promises to the Jews in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament remain in effect because God’s promises do not change and because the whole Bible (Old and New Testaments) communicates an infallible message that is relevant today. Gentile Christians have been “grafted into” God’s blessings to Israel (Romans 11), but God has not rejected the Jews or revoked his promises to them. This is a more specifically Christian, or Judeo-Christian, belief than basic moral Zionism is. Most non-believing observers would understandably reject the notion that God made special promises to any people that remain in effect today. But many evangelicals as well as traditional Jews accept this covenantal view. They believe they should still obey the injunction of Psalm 122:6: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.”

The prominence of covenantal and progressive Zionism explains why there is no allusion in the ERLC statement on the Hamas attack to the end times. Nor is there such an emphasis in the NAE’s statement, aside from a general reference to the “peace of Jerusalem” in “its prophetic and scriptural significance.” The ERLC justified its support for Israel by reference to the legacy of violence against Jews, the priority of justice and peace in international affairs, and God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12. The NAE condemned Hamas’ attack on similar grounds, but put more emphasis than the ERLC did on the responsibility of both sides for restoring peace. 

In any event, Hamas’ incursion and the resulting atrocities are a slam-dunk moral case for most American evangelicals. History and theology, from an evangelical perspective, do not give Israel a “pass” simply to do whatever it wants as a nation. But it does give it the right to self-defense and self-preservation. And a traditionalist reading of the Bible suggests to evangelicals that God has not abandoned Israel, despite the manifest desire of the Jews’ enemies to destroy them.

Comments (28)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More